I went to the Museum on Sunday morning with the expectation of seeing the familiar. I knew that the Museum was the last work of the architect H.P. Berlage – and I knew that there was a collection of paintings by Mondrian and furniture by Rietveldt alongside other works of de Stijl.
I wandered through the galleries looking more at the architecture than the artworks. The former was made up of elaborate geometric progressions of spaces articulated by flat planes of coloured tiles. On the first floor I opened a door into a wide corridor with small galleries opening off it. These self-contained galleries each had a pair of bench seats built into the low wall separating the room and the corridor. On one side of the central opening a black, stone-topped bench faced out into the corridor and on the opposite side a wood-topped bench faced into the gallery. One was for the ‘public’ space of the corridor, the other for the intimate space of the gallery.
Two of the side galleries had the low wall but no benches. These rooms gave access to other, larger galleries and had doors on the axes. Glancing through one of these doors I was struck by the particular delight of seeing a series of rooms opening out, one after another, like misaligned frames. (I realise now that this came to me first when I was an architecture student visiting the Netherlands and seeing the paintings of Pieter de Hooch.) In this view there was a painting in the foreground, a doorway, in the middle an elaborate sculpture on a skeletal plinth adjacent to another doorway through which I could see the edge of a gilt frame and yet another doorway. I don’t know what the painting in the foreground was but the gilt frame, it turned out, contained a Francis Bacon. But in this glancing view the particular artworks hardly mattered (to me, at least). Instead what was intriguing was the promise inherent to this view – the potential of these rooms. I felt for a moment that I should leave this potential intact and continue on my way without going into these galleries. After all, visiting the museum always encompasses misunderstandings, lost opportunities, dead ends…
But inevitably my curiosity was piqued by that sculpture on its slender display stand. What I didn’t know and what had not occurred to me was that this was just one piece in a room devoted to the work of Constant, the Dutch architect, artist and situationist. I’ve read a good deal about Constant over the years so I knew how his work continued after Guy Débord had effectively wound up the Situationist International. Constant’s overarching proposal was for New Babylon – a new kind of city based on ‘play’ rather than ‘work’. He posited the idea of the city’s inhabitants as nomads moving freely through a vast network of zones of action – a spider’s web, a matrix, a labyrinth.
Of course, none of New Babylon was built though there were many parallel projects which had impact on the architecture: the Metabolists, Archigram and maybe most strikingly in the work of Cedric Price. The room at the museum presented Constant’s work in an orthodox museological manner without ‘immersion’ – paintings on white walls, sculptures evenly placed about the room, discreet lighting, labels in Dutch and English. But this collection of objects as much as any wunderkammer embodied a fragment of a proposal for a whole world. My reaction was, I am sure about the familiar made strange…image turned into object. And it was about rediscovering the pleasure inherent to Constant’s ideas around play and disorientation. In the museum installation the architectural models have an exactness to them that is in juxtaposition to the wall works. The paintings, with their smudges and fogs overpainted on newsprint open up the possibilities of the narratives implicit to the models. Looked at in isolation the models could be read as just another unrealisable utopian project but the combination of the two forms suggests a more complex proposal. Of course how that proposal has developed is in the realm of the digital nomad. I am less comfortable in this territory…I fear I am a member of the digital lumpen proletariat. So to a certain extent, my enthusiasm for New Babylon is a form of nostalgia. And it’s an experience I could only have in the (delirious? irrelevant?) museum.
In an adjacent room to the display of Constant’s work, beyond curtained doorways, was a late 19th century Art Nouveau domestic interior. Uprooted from its original location this represented another version of time travel. But both this space and that of New Babylon easily float free of their context, colliding and merging as difficult, inconvenient artefacts in the physical world.